The Senate passed its $22.2 billion budget shortly after midnight Friday, on a 26–13 party-line vote. There are some good things in it—but also some truly terrible ideas. Below, we've highlighted some key provisions to watch as the General Assembly begins the process of reconciling the Senate's budget with the one the House passed last month—good, bad, and ugly alike.
Teacher pay: Both budgets raise teacher pay (it is an election year, you know), albeit in different ways. The House gives teachers raises of up to 5 percent, while the Senate gives teachers annual raises during their first fifteen years in an effort to raise average teacher pay to about $54,000 per year, just below the national average. North Carolina currently ranks forty-first in the country in teacher pay. At the very least, there's finally some recognition that that's not OK.
Light rail funding cap: Both budgets also eliminate the $500,000 cap on state funding for the light-rail project between Durham and Chapel Hill, a provision secretly tucked into last year's budget. But there's a hitch. The Senate version limits the state's contribution to any commuter or light rail project at 10 percent of the total project cost. The problem: current plans call for the state to fund one quarter of the light rail line, so the Senate's budget once again imperils the project.
HBCU tuition: Earlier this year, Senator Tom Apodaca proposed cutting tuition at five different UNC system schools, including three historically black colleges and universities—Elizabeth City State, Winston-Salem State, and Fayetteville State—to $500 a semester. Which sounds great. But, of course, it would also starve these schools of funds. Apodaca theorizes that they could recoup the loss through increased state funding. Again, that sounds great, except that there's no guarantee the state will actually fund these schools adequately, especially considering the legislature debated closing Elizabeth City State in 2014. With good reason, critics, including HBCU students and African-American lawmakers, saw Apodaca's plan as a way to undermine HBCUs, perhaps even to eventually eliminate them altogether. After considerable protest, the Buncombe County senator dropped the three HBCUs from this provision of the final Senate budget.
Low-income energy assistance: Both budgets cut $5.7 million for programs that help low-income people afford energy costs, including $2.15 million each from the Low-Income Energy Assistance Program and the Crisis Intervention Program. LIEAP provides a one-time payment to help eligible households pay their heating bills, while the CIP provides up to $600 each year to assist in a "heating or cooling-related emergency." According to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, LIEAP helped more than 141,000 households pay their heating bills from December 2014 to March 2015.
Jordan Lake: SolarBees failed to do anything to clean up the nutrient-polluted Jordan Lake, but the Senate has another trick up its sleeve—anything to avoid actually cleaning up a reservoir that provides drinking water to three hundred thousand people in Wake and Chatham counties. A provision in the Senate budget earmarks $500,000 to study whether freshwater mussels can clean up polluted water bodies like Jordan Lake and another $500,000 to study other in-lake strategies to control pollution, ignoring the fact that these kinds of approaches generally don't work. Yet another provision blocks implementation of the badly needed Jordan Lake rules through 2019.
And that's not all: The Senate also wants to repeal requirements for vegetative riparian buffers along state waterways—including the Neuse, Tar-Pamlico and Catawba rivers—in December 2019, even if no alternative is in place. Buffers, scientists say, are the most cost-effective means of controlling polluted runoff. For lawmakers, it seems, clean water isn't as high a priority as fealty to development interests.
Education: When adjusted for inflation, per-student funding in the UNC system still lags behind its pre-recession rate. It's not going to get any better this year. The cuts made to higher education over the last couple of years won't be restored, and, as N.C. Budget & Tax Center analyst Cedric Johnson notes, the Senate's budget also cuts $26.2 million from community colleges. Meanwhile, the Senate wants to cut the Department of Public Instruction's budget by $2 million, which could most directly hit the DPI's somewhat successful school-turnaround program. As former General Assembly education policy analyst Kris Nordstrom points out, this "is the only office that isn't statutorily required, so they would likely take the brunt of the Senate cuts, if they become law."
In addition, the Senate incorporated into its budget a plan to drastically boost the school's voucher program over the next ten years, bumping funding until it reaches $144.8 million in 2027. According to Nordstrom's calculations, the plan will cost the state more than $170 million over the next five years alone—and in the process the state will often be routing taxpayer dollars to religious schools that openly discriminate against LGBTQ students.
Wright School: The Senate is once again attempting to close Wright School, a program for kids in need of intensive mental health treatment in Durham that House Appropriations Committee chairman Nelson Dollar, R-Cary, once called "one of the most impressive treatment programs operated anywhere in the state." After the Senate unveiled its budget last week, Dollar told North Carolina Health News that the Senate was "holding those children and those families hostage in a budget process." The implication is that the Wright School is being used as a bargaining chip in reconciliation talks. Which is about as ugly as politics gets.